SHAKESPEARE AND THE TONYS

I can’t help it. Even though the Tonys have all but vanished off the radar due to the 2020 ceremony being postponed fifteen months until September 26th (eight weeks away), I still have them on the brain. And today’s thought that occurred to me is that for all the brilliant roles the Bard has provided, very few actors in the seventy-three year history of the Tonys have ever won for playing in a Shakespeare comedy or drama. Let me count the ways.

First off, it should be acknowledged that Shakespeare is not a regular Broadway visitor the way it once was. Since Joseph Papp instituted the non-profit Public Theatre more than sixty years ago, it fell to Off-Broadway to stage productions downtown or in Central Park. Before the Tonys were founded in 1947, Shakespeare plays were plentiful on Broadway in the 1920s with such stalwarts as John Barrymore and Eva Le Gallienne leading mostly American actors in often sizable box office hits. Also, British acting companies widely toured the U.S. for decades, landing on Broadway at the beginning or end of their journeys for limited runs. Their productions featured some of the greatest stars of the day like Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. And ex-patriot Maurice Evans did a tremendous service by introducing Shakespeare to millions in the early 1950s through his television performances on the Hallmark Hall of Fame specials, essaying multiple lead characters from the canon.

It was at the second Tony ceremony that one remnant of old school classical-style performance was represented by two of the three actress cited as “best” of the 1947–48 season (there were no nominees for the first nine years of the awards). Katharine Cornell received a Tony for Antony and Cleopatra, which she shared with Judith Anderson as Medea and Jessica Tandy in A Streetcar Named Desire — yowza! However, Cornell is, sadly to this date, the first and last woman to receive a Tony for a Shakespeare performance. And even though she was fifty-five at the time and her Marc Antony, Godfrey Tearle, was sixty-two, audiences didn’t care. Of note, is that in the large cast were the very youthful Charlton Heston, Tony Randall, Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach. Cornell, and her husband the director Guthrie McClintic, were known for a keen eye for casting as well as providing work and opportunities for actors just starting out. Of her death scene as Cleopatra, Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times wrote: “To one of the most memorable scenes Shakespeare ever wrote she brings the style, authority and incandescence that become her best.”

It would be eighteen years from the first ceremony till the next when a Shakespeare performance was honored, this time in the supporting actor category with Hume Cronyn’s Polonius for the win. This was the famous 1964 modern-dress Hamlet that starred Richard Burton (then at the height of his fame and only recently married to Elizabeth Taylor after their highly publicized on-set love affair when she was filming Cleopatra to his Marc Antony). There is a video that exists of this production shot on the stage; a bold experiment to present it in theatres in order to allow people the chance to experience what was a very hot ticket. At 137 performances, it remains to date the longest run of Hamletin any Broadway production. That said, despite its box office success, it was not critically praised (Burton lost the Tony to Alec Guinness as Dylan Thomas in Sidney Michael’s’ Dylan). Cronyn does indeed steal every scene he’s in as the wily father to Laertes and Ophelia, offering up some of the juiciest comic lines in a play more usually known for its dense and dark drama. If you so dare… you can choose to watch some of this Hamlet, readily available on YouTube.

Twenty-one years later, Derek Jacobi and the Royal Shakespeare Company came to Broadway and presented Much Ado About Nothing andCyrano de Bergerac in rep. It was cause for much rejoicing as both productions, directed by the then-RSC artistic director, Terry Hands, were about as good as classical theatre gets. I saw each of them twice, and would have gladly gone over and over again, as there was so much to see and savor, especially in Jacobi’s masterful takes on Benedick and Cyrano. There was some surprise when it was announced that the Tony nominators had chosen to recognize Jacobi for his Much Ado over hisCyrano, which was by far the flashier role with a death scene that broke your heart (sorry, should have said spoiler alert — and for Cleopatra as well). But Jacobi truly dazzled with his verbal swordplay as Benedick and had some sublime comic moments I still recall vividly thirty-six years later. Surely, he won the award for both roles (how could a voter in their minds not take his Cyrano into consideration when checking off the box on their ballot?).

If you’re wondering if anyone has won for playing King Lear or Mr. or Mrs. Macbeth or Prospero, the answer is no one, though the role of Hamlet has provided three actors with nominations (the aforementioned Burton in 1964 and Jude Law in 2010). It won the Tony for Ralph Fiennes when he performed it with Britain’s Almeida Theatre Company in 1995. I would love to have seen this production, if only to have experienced Francesca Annis as Gertrude, in that she was Ophelia in the first Hamlet I ever saw (opposite Nicol Williamson in 1969) when I was twelve-years-old. By the way, Damian Lewis (now famous for the TV series Homeland and Billions among many other credits) was Laertes in this 1995 Hamlet and had, in fact, played Hamlet himself as a twenty-three year old only a year before in an outdoor production in London’s Regent Park.

As for Fiennes, his robust performance help make the show a total sell-out, with celebrities paying their respects the likes of Barbra Streisand, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Cher, Kirk Douglas, Bette Midler, Lauren Bacall and Hugh Grant — with “desperate would-be theatergoers camped out on lawn chairs overnight, hoping for standing-room admissions” (according to Vanity Fair, that is).

When Mark Rylance was the recipient of his third Tony Award, he won it for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Not for Malvolio or Sir Toby Belch, but for the role of Olivia, as this was an all-male production of the play, presented in rep with Rylance as Richard III (for which he was also nominated), his Olivia was truly astounding (again, a performance I made it my business to see twice — and I was living in Los Angeles at the time, so it meant two trips to NY). Neither his Olivia, or any of the men in women’s roles, were stunts or gimmicky whatsoever. What the production gave us (under Tim Carroll’s clever and sensitive direction) was what it must have been like when men played women back in Shakespeare’s day. For that, theatregoers were fascinated and grateful. Like Ralph Fiennes’ Hamlet (also at the Belasco Theatre), excellent reviews and box office proved that Shakespeare can easily be a sell-out when done well.

So, that’s it. A mere six actors in six different Shakespeare plays. Others nominated over the decades are such actresses as Margaret Leighton, Kathleen Widdoes and Sinéad Cusack in Much Ado About Nothing — yes, Beatrice is a good part; Glenda Jackson and Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth (Macbeth); Geraldine James and Lily Rabe as Portia (Merchant of Venice); and Margaret Tyzack as the Countess of Rossillion (All’s Well That Ends Well). As for actors: Christopher Plummer for his Iago (Othello) and his King Lear; Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino as Shylock (Merchant of Venice); Brian Bedford (Timon of Athens); Kevin Kline as Falstaff (Henry IV), Patrick Stewart (Macbeth), Barnard Hughes as Dogberry (Much Ado About Nothing); Stephen Moore as Parolles (All’s Well That Ends Well); Samuel Barnett (Viola) Paul Chahidi (Maria) and Stephen Fry (Malvolio) in Twelfth Night; and, on a technicality, Ian McKellen for Acting Shakespeare, in which the actor lectured and did various monologues in a well thought out evening of theatre (though I saw it at a matinee).

Nearly half of this list went on to be awarded Tonys for non-Shakespearean roles, which isn’t too shabby. And for old timers like Dustin Hoffman and Patrick Stewart it’s never too late. Even so, as the great man once wrote, there are pitfalls to being anointed a winner: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part One).

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.